Good pointing dog trainers have an overview of the steadying process. They think less about specific training steps and more about training in broader terms. A good example is Bill West. If you ever spent time around Bill, you heard the terms on birds and around birds. When a dog was on birds, the dog had scent of a bird. When a dog was around birds, the dog knew birds were in the area or he saw birds fly, but no scent was involved. The difference between on birds and around birds may seem insignificant, but if you think about it, most training situations take place either on birds or around birds, and you may be surprised at how these two simple terms can help keep your dog happy and manage his level of excitement as you go through formal training.
One of the first rules in the Bill West method is to train a dog in a field where the dog is around birds. The dog thinks he can find birds so he is happy to be out there and in a good frame of mind to learn. When he does a good job, he is rewarded by being worked on birds. This bird contact increases his level of excitement, and he will look for birds in the next workout. Unfortunately, dogs that are worked in the backyard, where they haven’t found birds, rarely enjoy training and some lose interest altogether.
As training progresses, these two terms help you manage your dog’s level of excitement the same way you adjust a thermostat. Not hot enough, you work him on birds. Too hot, you work him around birds. Anytime your dog is around birds, he is calmer and you need less pressure to gain his attention. Here is where the majority of teaching takes place and where your dog learns to be obedient to your commands. Take the stand command. Teaching this command is basic obedience work, which most dogs find boring, but if your dog is worked around birds, he is in a good state of mind to learn and he stays relatively calm. And because he’s not on birds, you can get your hands on him, set him back, spin him or stroke him and you’re not coming between him and the bird.
If you make a mistake or notice your dog is less excited about being out there, you can work him on birds and quickly build back his excitement. Just last week, I was working a young dog and teaching him the e-collar cue for the stand command. About the third time I nicked him with the e-collar, he became concerned. As soon as I saw this change, I took him right to a bird and let him point it, and he became excited again.
Sometimes you have a dog on the end of a check-cord that is dragging you around and too excited to focus on training. You can lower his excitement level by working on obedience around birds, not on birds. It may take a couple of weeks of simply asking him to go with you and come to you on the check-cord, but until you gain his focus, he isn’t ready to work on birds. If you begin bird work before your dog is focused on training, you will have to use more pressure to teach him and this extra pressure often shows up as problems later on.
Bill West had two well-known students, pro trainers Bill Gibbons and Maurice Lindley, that developed their own unique methods for working dogs on birds and around birds. Bill Gibbons worked dogs in a procession where each dog, guided with a check-cord by a handler, followed behind another dog. The dog in front was brought in to point a bird while the other dogs were stopped and allowed to watch from behind. These dogs were around birds and this is where the basic obedience commands were taught. Maurice Lindley brought Bill to South Carolina to teach a seminar, and after watching Bill’s procession, he developed a launcher program to simulate Bill’s method of working around birds. (See Training with Mo: How Maurice Lindley Trains Pointing Dogs by Martha Greenlee).
As you gain a better understanding of the terms on birds and around birds, you’ll see how managing your dog’s energy level gives you a broader view of the steadying process. Whenever your dog seems too excited, you can work him on obedience around birds to regain his focus so you need less pressure to teach him, and if your dog seems bored or isn’t up for training, you can work him on birds to rekindle his excitement. During each workout, you are constantly making adjustments to the thermostat, turning it up or down, as you react to what your dog did or anticipate what he’s about to do. And as you learn to keep him happy and manage his energy level, you will discover that you are leaving far fewer fingerprints on your dog than ever before.